Further Education: Out of the Language Prison ; When Huguenot Refugees Sought Asylum in Britain in the 17th Century, We Couldn't Do Enough to Help Them. but Now We Can't Even Ensure That Immigrants Learn English - and the New Asylum Bill Isn't Helping, Writes GEORGE LOW

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"Large numbers of refugees continued to arrive at all the southern ports ... The greater number arrived destitute, whole families were sometimes lost in Channel storms or on the rocky coastline. Many were pastors who came ashore hungry and in rags, lamenting the loss of their congregations, and others mourned the fate of wives and children they had been forced to leave behind. These landings continued for many years and the sight of so much distress borne so patiently and uncomplainingly deeply stirred the heart of the nation. Every effort was made to succour and help the poor refugees for conscience sake ... A fund was raised for the relief of the most necessitous and for enabling the foreigners to proceed inland to places where they could pursue their industry. Many were forwarded from the sea-coast to London, Canterbury, Norwich and other places where they eventually formed prosperous settlements and laid the foundations of important branches of our nation's industry."

This was Samuel Smiles's account of the arrival of thousands of French Huguenots as asylum-seekers at the end of the 17th century. Most of them spoke not a word of English. A Bill was rushed through Parliament to assist these newcomers to establish themselves and start businesses and trades. Once they had been given tools and the English language, they set about founding or reforming the English glass, lace, cloth and paper industries, and introduced such refinements as cutlery, table wine, biscuits and oxtail soup.

So successfully did they integrate that within a few years they had Anglicised their names and forgotten their French. Above all, the Huguenot communities helped each other to survive and then thrive, "and by their skill, intelligence and laboriousness, richly repaid England for the hospitality that had been so generously extended to them".

Three centuries and several migrations later, Samuel Smiles's principle of "self-help" still holds good, according to a new report from the Basic Skills Agency. England's 300 or more ethnic communities are the best people to teach, train and support immigrants and asylum-seekers who arrive in this country. Unfortunately, though, government policy has for too long been one of neglect, blind panic or prejudice rather than helping these people to start a new and productive life.

A study by Professor Roy Carr-Hill, of the London University Institute of Education, in 1996 showed the woeful inadequacy of teaching English and other skills to immigrants, especially those from Asia. Only one- third could speak the language of their adopted country at survival level, and only 2 per cent could participate fully in English life. Moreover, the statistics of those with ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) needs were uncertain at the best, and the provision of courses varied enormously across the land and between ethnic groups. One in three Punjabi parents could not write their name or read their children's school timetable.

Commenting on the report at the time, the Basic Skills Agency director Alan Wells says: "We really must do better. This is the first indication of the need and I hope it will be the beginning of a serious attempt to develop a language policy for everybody wanting to settle in the UK."

Since then, things have indeed improved. There is now a national curriculum and proper standards for ESOL teaching that come into force this September, and the one million or more people with basic skills and language needs identified by Professor Carr-Hill are now a priority for the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit at the DfES. Local LSCs (Learning and Skills Councils) are now mapping the needs of immigrants and ethnic groups in their areas, and coming up with plans for funding more courses where there are gaps. …